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Deciding How to Decide

Originally published mayo 8, 2007

All of us, regardless of organizational position, make decisions. Making the best decision with the best information is the basis of decision support systems and the impetus for business intelligence (BI). However, there are a variety of decisions made by the BI team, managers, and business that occur in the process of building the decision support infrastructure. In fact, many BI managers and teams seem to struggle with the concept of who makes what decision and the best way to decide. Comments and complaints abound about decisions being too arbitrary, too dictatorial, too slow, too fast, not incorporating enough input, not being made at the right level, etc.

One of the early proponents of participative decision making was the social scientist Rensis Likert, who was Director of the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan. It was Likert’s belief, based on years of research in organizations, that better decisions come out of participation and that people who make those decisions are more highly committed to carrying them out than those not involved in the process. In general, that means it is best to seek the maximum appropriate involvement to increase ownership of the decision. However, based on the complexity and speed of what BI initiatives are trying to accomplish, participative decision making is not always possible. In fact, seeking participation on every decision can be just as dangerous as driving every decision by yourself.

When the decision is in your hands, consider the following factors to determine what type of process is appropriate. There is not one “right” way. The best decision-making process depends on the situation. Consider the following steps:

Step One: Understand the factors that are most relevant to the decision that needs to be made.

  • Ownership: Who should be involved so that the decision will be supported?
  • Time: How much time can we commit to making the decision?
  • Importance: How important is the issue?
  • Expertise: Who has the knowledge and experience required to contribute effectively to the decision?
  • Experience: How experienced are the individuals and/or team in group decision-making processes?
  • Cohesion: Will this opportunity to participate in making the decision increase the cohesion of the team?

Step Two: Determine the most appropriate method based on the factors described in Step One.

If we analyze the most appropriate method based on the dimensions of ownership and involvement, there are six methods that might be selected. Each of these choices builds different levels of ownership and requires different levels of involvement. See Figure 1.

Figure 1


No Input: Select this method when you have the authority to make the decision and determine that the best course of action is to make that decision by yourself, without input from others. Although this might be construed as “dictatorial,” there are situations when this approach is the best approach. The advantages of this approach include:

  • Fast – doesn’t require participation and coordination of others.
  • Doesn’t require the team to be experienced in decision-making.
  • Empowers you to do what you think is best based on your expertise.

The disadvantages of this approach include:

  • Doesn’t build group ownership in the outcome.
  • Incorporates limited expertise in whatever the subject matter might be.
  • Doesn’t create the opportunity to build cohesion in the team.

Some examples of a situation where this approach might make sense include: how to respond to an urgent production problem, what day of the week to hold status meetings, or how to respond to a team member’s inappropriate comment.

Individual Input: Select this method when you want to retain the authority to make the decision and determine that it’s important to solicit input from selected individuals. The input you obtain may or may not support your ultimate decision. In fact, you might even get conflicting input and your decision may be different than what the individuals suggest. The ultimate decision is still yours to make. The advantages of this approach include:

  • Fast - limits the amount of input and coordination.
  • Increases ownership for the outcome.
  • Have broader expertise to guide your decision.

The disadvantages include:

  • Builds minimal cohesion.
  • Requires more time and coordination.
  • May actually create dissent if you decide something different than the input given to you.

Frequently, dissent shows up in comments like: “I told you what I thought and you did something different anyway, so why did I bother?” The best way to mitigate that possibility is to clearly articulate the decision process and differentiate between this method and a consensus approach. Some examples of situations where this approach might make sense include: selecting a consultant to support your ETL process (you would want your ETL experts involved), purchasing a data modeling tool (you would want input from the data modelers), or deciding how to model a particular subject area (you might solicit input from peers and or additional business expertise).

Team Input: Select this method when you want to retain the authority to make the decision and determine that the best course of action is to make the decision with input from the entire team. The advantages of this approach include:

  • Builds broader ownership in the outcome than previously mentioned models.
  • Solicits expertise from all the people on the team.
  • Provides an opportunity to build cohesion in the team.

The disadvantages of this approach include:

  • May create dissent within the team and with you if there are conflicting opinions.
  • Can also create cynicism if you decide something different than the team recommends.
  • Requires more time up front.
  • Need to make sure the team understands the difference between giving input to the decision and making the decision.

Some examples of situations where this approach might make sense include: hiring a new team member, selecting an architecture approach, or making scope commitments.

Consensus: Select this method when you want a high degree of ownership and have time to involve all the appropriate participants. The big shift here is that you are giving the authority for the decision to the team. Consensus, in our definition, is a decision made by the team that “everyone can live with” and allows for varying degrees of support. Some may be more supportive of the particular decision than others, but everyone agrees to support it. This is distinctly different than unanimity where you’re trying to achieve a high level of support from everyone. The advantages of the consensus approach include:

  • Creates maximum ownership in the outcome because everyone’s buy-in is essential.
  • Builds cohesion in the team because all perspectives are incorporated.
  • Forces the team to work through differences.

The disadvantages of this approach include:

  • Time required to incorporate multiple people in a discussion of all the different perspectives.
  • Skill required to reconcile opinions and move forward with a decision that “everyone can live with.”

Some examples of situations where this approach might make sense include: committing to the project schedule, selecting the overall business intelligence approach, or determining the sequence of projects that the team undertakes.

Unanimity: Select this method when you want to spend a lot of time and increase the frustration of everyone involved! This method is frequently confused with consensus. Whereas consensus attempts to move everyone to a position of support, unanimity implies that we all feel the same degree of strong support for the decision. This is typically so difficult to achieve that it is rarely attempted in team environments. Even if you were able to achieve unanimity, one would have to ask if the team had taken on a position of “group think” and question the wisdom of such a decision. The advantages of this approach include:

  • Maximum ownership.
  • Maximum expertise.
  • Cohesion of the team.

The disadvantages of this approach include:

  • Time required to move the entire team to this level of agreement.
  • Potential for error if the team is indeed in “group think” mode.

Step Three: Communicate the method and the alternate approach.

In all of these methods, it is important to be clear up front about the approach you are taking. If the approach requires input from others, it is important to articulate what you are asking. When asked for their “input,” many individuals leap to the assumption that their viewpoint will become the decision. So, when the person with the authority to make the decision, having fully processed all the input, decides to do something different, it creates problems. Without understanding their role, those who provide input may feel that they weren’t heard, that they wasted their time, or that their input was not valuable.

Additionally, in all of these methods it is important to have a “fallback” position if the selected decision model isn’t working or is taking too long. For example, when giving a decision to a team in the consensus model, be sure that you have a “fallback” position based on time-boxing. An example might be: “I’m delegating the authority to make this decision to the team using a consensus model. If you cannot reach agreement on this issue within two hours, I reserve the right to make the decision and take your discussion as input (essentially falling back to Team Input).

Participative decision making has advantages, but each situation will require that you weigh the advantages and disadvantages based on the ownership and involvement that makes sense. If you need help, contact me at mclarry@connectknowledge.com!

SOURCE: Deciding How to Decide

  • Maureen ClarryMaureen Clarry

    Maureen is the Founder and President/CEO of CONNECT: The Knowledge Network (CONNECT), an Xtivia company. CONNECT specializes in data, technical, and organizational solutions for business intelligence. Maureen has been on the faculty of TDWI since 1998, served on the Board for the Colorado Chapter of TDWI, and participates on the Data Warehousing Advisory Board for the University of Denver. CONNECT has been recognized as the South Metro Denver Small Business of the Year, the Top 25 Women Owned and Top 150 Privately Owned Businesses in Colorado. Maureen can be reached at mclarry@connectknowledge.com or 303-730-7171, ext. 102.

    Editor's Note: More articles and resourcesáare available in Maureen's BeyeNETWORK Expert Channel. Be sure to visit today!

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